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Chinese search for alternatives

Muhammad Tariq Khan

The Writer is journalist and Lecturer at Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto University of Law.

We have written several times how China’s Belt and Road initiative, a mega-project gain access the Arabian Sea via Pakistan, has slowed down after the current government came to power and China is now seeking alternatives to routes which were earlier envisaged under CPEC.

China recently signed $25 billion investment deals with Iran. During the signing ceremony, Chinese and Iranian representatives hinted at Pakistan’s instable and differing policies. The Chinese Consul General in Karachi in a meeting with FPCCI President openly criticized Pakistan’s policies and last week the Chinese Ambassador addressed a function slamming the judiciary’s and military interference in policy matters which he termed as the biggest obstacle in the way of Pakistan’s development.

The latest news is that China is investing heavily in infrastructure development in Afghanistan to gain access to Iran and the Middle East via the Wakhan Corridor and connect it with Central Asia. The new US administration has announced a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. China has termed the hasty withdrawal a conspiracy, regardless of the consequences. The US wants to sabotage Chinese plans in Afghanistan by inflicting a bloody civil war on Afghanistan.

In the more than six years since President Xi Jinping’s historic BRI project, China has included almost all countries in the region. However, Afghanistan was deemed unsuitable as the Chinese believed that the situation was unlikely to improve, extremism, religious and ethnic and linguistic differences are deeply rooted leading to civil war and internal strife. That is why China announced $65 billion investment in Pakistan under the Belt and Road project.

Before the ‘Tsunami of Change’ struck Pakistan, all issues between the two countries were settled amicably. Work on the game changer project began at lightning speed and the effects of CPEC were being felt.

Pakistan emerged from an energy crisis within five years, motorways, tunnels and bridges across the country were being laid to revamp the communication system from Gilgit to Karachi and Gwadar. The distances narrowed as transportation became easier and with Gwadar port being fully operational, commercial goods began arriving by sea from China. This opened the door to a new era of prosperity and development in Pakistan and the region.

Perhaps this is what displeased the Americans and their allies and once again new conspiracies were hatched. In 2018, the political leadership was changed through the worst electoral fraud. The new government could not keep its intentions secret for long and the ministers openly started openly lambasting CPEC. Murad Saeed termed it a source of corruption while Razzaq Dawood stopped the implementation and hinted at revisiting the landmark agreement. This change in Pakistan’s attitude also took the Chinese by surprise. The Chinese temporarily slowed down the projects under construction and completely froze the next stages of projects. Islamabad eventually realized that the atmosphere of trust and cooperation between the two countries had been severely damaged, but the steps taken to improve relations and damage control were not only inadequate but also ineffective.

There was an element of half-heartedness and indifference. Prime Minister Imran Khan handed over the supervision of the CPEC project from his cabinet to a former general. The seriousness of this decision can be gauged from the fact that retired General Asim Bajwa’s sons had campaigned against CPEC in the past and his family had business interests in the United States.

The far-sighted Chinese were certainly not unaware of the changing attitudes, which is why Asim Bajwa had to resign shortly after. But it seemed that US influence on either or both the Pakistani establishment and government was strong enough and that they would make all efforts to disrupt or slow down CPEC. China began looking for alternatives despite not having a short, easy and safe alternative like Pakistan as every route from Central Asia to Middle East or Europe via Russia, Iran or Turkey is difficult, long and unfeasible. There are also legal complications with passing through different countries.

This is perhaps what misled Pakistan’s policy makers who believed Pakistan will remains attached to them. This mindset is extremely dangerous and it is naïve to ignore the Chinese power, ability and determination to go to any lengths to protect their interests. China has freed itself from American and Indian shackles and is dominant in the Pacific Ocean. CPEC is an important but small part of the BRI project to reduce dependence on trade through a single route. Through its aggressive investment policy, China has so far built a network of roads and railways in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Mongolia to Russia, and through Central Asian states to Turkey and Europe. Trains loaded with commercial goods from China are reaching Europe via Central Asia. Chinese planners designed these routes as an alternative to directly access different markets when routes are closed.

The easiest and shortest way to reach the Middle East and East Africa is Pakistan. China and Pakistan have held excellent relations and Pakistan is safe for the Chinese. But the mixed signals sent by the government have hurt Chinese’s confidence and forced them to consider alternatives. China now have their eyes on are now on Afghanistan and Iran,

There is an element of grievance and bitterness for Pakistan among Chinese ambassadors and foreign minister. The Chinese generally believe in soft power. There are the best of friends and the worst of enemies. In both cases they value low-profile and soft-spoken diplomacy and pursue non-interference in other countries internal affairs. However, if their interests are affected, they openly express it and do not hesitate to look for alternatives.

In this context, China has begun investing heavily in Afghanistan along with Iran and will ensure the completion and protection of these projects at all costs. The US is well aware of China’s intentions and will leave without a peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan. China believes that such a hasty withdrawal could in fact push Afghanistan into a new and fierce civil war which would have a direct effect on Chinese projects and access to Iranian ports. The situation is unacceptable for China but it is too early to say how far the Chinese will go and what options it has.

Therefore, our policy makers must understand that a dual policy with China cannot be pursued like the US. The United States is a multi-party democracy, with changes of governments, administrations, policies, and friendships, while China has a one-party system with continuity of leadership and policies guaranteeing the success of the system. The US is thousands of miles away while we share a border with China. It is imperative to we have long-term economic and defence interests with China to maintain stability.